MLS: Take the skinheads bowling

I realize it was several weeks ago now, but I'm still irritated by Vice Sports' nonsensical coverage of the "ultras" clash in front of a pub in New Jersey. 

The actual incident, of course, would have been dignified with the Yakety Sax soundtrack.  If it were the Sharks and Jets, Sondheim would have told them to butch it up a little.  It made a Joel v. Mike argument amongst Mystery Science Theater fans look like the fourth month of the Battle of Stalingrad.  Naturally the British press, having gotten a load of the video, treated it like the shiniest present on Christmas morning.  I of all people can't begrudge someone a cheap laugh at the expense of idiots.

But Bo Franklin, who deserves a link as much as he deserves a Pulitzer, saw something more sinister:

In the early days of the league, the clubs kept a tight rein on fan groups, helping to avoid the reputation of hooliganism that's plagued European football in the past. However, it also meant they were effectively neutered.

Now things are starting to change and many American fans are modelling themselves on European ultras. In the video of the Red Bulls and City clash, fans can clearly be heard aping the same chant that echoes around stadiums up and down the UK, even down to their affected mockney accents: "Who are ya?"


MLS players better get used to being told "You suck, asshole!", because America's ultras refuse to be silenced.

The most noteworthy reaction to Franklin's article so far was utter amazement that he thought the "FO" in a Garden State Ultras screed referred to the fourth official. 

So, we have worldwide horse laughs at the expense of the dingdongs in the video and the dopes trying to farm it into clickbait.  Why make a big deal of it?

Well, for one thing, Franklin and Vice aren't the first to try to make a quick buck out of shouting "hooligans in MLS!"  Franklin seems unaware - I should put a period right there, shouldn't I? - that he is treading on a path both well-worn and garbage-strewn.  Back in 2007, former professional hooligan and chancre Dougie Brimson took his vocabulary of a dozen or so words and crapped out "March of the Hooligans," a dire warning against people like himself infesting MLS.  It's on sale at Amazon for a penny, but it costs $3.99 shipping, and you're better off spending more that four bucks for higher quality toilet paper.

Maybe Franklin will soon join Brimson taking the hoolie lit route to English best-seller lists and American landfills.  Apparently someone needs to warn America's sports fans about the spectre of the San Jose Ultras (no shirts, no clues, no purpose).  But I resent these Airstrip One Jane Austens trying to climb off the dole on the backs of my fellow fans.

Gullibility about the hooligan menace in America had, up until now, its zenith when Franklin Foer's "How Soccer Explained the World" regaled us with the adventures of a pseudonymous fabulist named "Alan Garrison," an erstwhile Chelsea Headhunter who introduced English-style fan violence to Oakland Raiders fans.  This claim would have astounded Ice Cube, let alone Hunter S. Thompson.  

But Foer not only left "Garrison" in the final draft, he devoted an entire chapter to him. 

There are a couple of reasons that I find a lot of this silliness frustrating and offensive.  As we've seen, there's something about hooliganism that makes writers want to insult the intelligence of their readers.  Before England declined the invitation to attend the 1994 World Cup, organizers who should have known better were sweating like crazy.  Look, check out this stuff from the time capsule, if you don't believe me:

The English are not assured of qualifying for the final 24-team tournament, but concern won't die with them. Hooligan organizations are a threat in almost every European country. Of the 3.5 million tickets available for the World Cup, roughly 1.3 million will be allotted to FIFA for international distribution. Estimates are that 1 million foreigners will visit the United States for the World Cup. The tournament is likely to smash the World Cup attendance record of 2.5 million set two years ago in Italy, where the deployment of the national army was unable to prevent incidents, though some maintain the Italian methods incited violence.

"The greater the numbers, the higher the risk of a problem," George says. "At the last World Cup, of the 8,000 England fans, the hardcore group was very, very small. The potent troublemakers could be 200."

These 200, if the number is indeed that small, are willing to dress in the colors of an opposing team to avoid detection. Working in groups, they are expert in manipulating frenzied and often drunken soccer crowds, converting them into instant mobs.


There would have been all sorts of hooligans here had the English qualified, even older hooligans coming out of retirement for the event, according to Gary, a 28-year-old Leeds supporter from Plymouth who didn't want his last name used because he likes to travel in the United States on vacation, is recently married, and works as a clerk for a large American manufacturing company.

Gary, who sat down for a lunch recently when he was visiting friends in the Philadelphia suburbs, said he had been arrested twice in England, once for taking part in a brawl that wrecked a London pub. And once he was calling his girlfriend (now his wife) from a pay phone in London when a group of men went running by. "Uh, I've got to go. It's going off," he said, hanging up to go off and join the fight.

Gary, who wore khakis and an expensive shirt buttoned down the front, said he figured that most English hooligans would have come over inconspicuously in small groups, using fake passports, and would have linked up over here. The right-wing-affiliated groups may have looked to link up with extremist groups in this country.

Some of our younger readers may be wondering at this point whether policemen in America carried guns in the 1990's.  The answer, you may be surprised to hear, is yes.  And yet people wondered whether Rudy Giuliani's NYPD and CRASH-era LAPD, to pick a couple of examples at random, would have been up to the challenge. 

Violence among sports fans is one of the most easily-solved alleged crises of my lifetime - all that is needed is adequate and adequately-trained security.  MLS has had plenty of fights between rival fans (and fans of the same team) - just like every other sport in America.  And yet, while the United States is a byword for violence, the crime rate at and around sporting events is trivial compared to the nonsense they put up with in other countries.  And when it does happen here, no one blames the sport in question.   

I believe this is largely because sports fans in America have, generally, been treated as valuable customers, while sports fans abroad have, generally, not.  The history of world soccer disasters is the history of lazy, disinterested ownership and authorities cutting corners and treating fans like dangerous animals.  You will also notice a very, very close parallel, even in America, between violent incidents and crummy ownership.  The Raiders spring to mind, and the Frank McCourt-era Dodgers.  It's tempting for some to make sweeping statements about race and class about this sort of thing, but we're still talking about policing a localized, ticketed area with plenty of notice beforehand.  Visible police and security presence is, pretty much, all it takes.  If Mexico can keep American fans in Azteca safe, I think we can handle a few hooligan cosplayers.

Fan behavior is an MLS issue, and in this case the league seems, in the words of Juergen Klinsmann, proactive.  Sean Steffen had an informative article on Robbie Rogers playing for people who enjoy shouting out something that rhymes with a dwarf planet.  The Galaxy are actually concerned about the p-word chant arriving at the StubHub Center - exactly the sort of issue that team and league would have avoided in the past.  I'm sure there will be the P-word dead-ender equivalent of the Garden State Ultras, but time is not on their side.  It never was.